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Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

(1800 - 1882)

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Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was a Jewish German painter and printmaker born in Hanau, Germany in 1800. He was considered the first Jewish painter since he was the first Jewish artist to gain acceptance in the non-Jewish German society. While many Jewish eighteenth and nineteenth century artists converted to Christianity in order to gain acceptance as artists in the modern world, Oppenheim remained an observant and dedicated Jew throughout his career and lifetime. He was the first artist in the nineteenth century to be outspoken about his strong Jewish identity while simultaneously working within the German non-Jewish sector.

Prior to the emancipation of European Jewry, Jewish artists had been confined within their ghettos, prohibited from classical art institutions and apprenticeships with master artists. A Jewish artist’s work could only reach as far as his community. Moritz Oppenheim became the first Jewish painter to receive classical artistic training and exposure to modern artistic movements. He was also the first to gain official recognition from the non-Jewish world.

Oppenheim became known in non-Jewish circles as a portraitist of prominent gentiles and Jews, work that earned him universal celebration. After studying art at Frankfurt and Munich, he went to Paris and in 1821 to Rome, where he stayed four years. There he came under the influence of the Nazarenes, a group of fervently Christian artists who painted New Testament scenes. In 1825 Oppenheim returned to Frankfurt. In his twenties, Oppenheim was already considered a successful portrait painter and his paintings of Old and New Testament scenes were soon widely appreciated. He earned praise from Goethe, the leading figure of German culture, to whom he sent two drawings based on Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. Goethe, whom Oppenheim visited in Weimar and whose portrait he painted, persuaded the grand duke of Weimar to bestow upon the painter the title of honorary professor. From the 1830s to the 1850s, Oppenheim was the official portraitist of the Rothschild family, thus he is sometimes referred to as the “Painter of the Rothschilds and the Rothschild of Painters.” He was also commissioned to paint the portraits of Kaiser Otto IV and Joseph II in 1839.

In 1833 a picture with the narrative title "Return of a Jewish Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to his Family Still Living According to the Old Tradition" brought the artist further renown. Encouraged by its wide success, Oppenheim painted 19 other canvases on Jewish motifs. These were eventually published in an album, Bilder aus dem altjuedischen Familienleben (1865) which appeared in the United States as Family Scenes from Jewish Life of Former Days (1866). These genre scenes, realistic yet tinged with romanticism, were much appreciated. They show excellent composition, and real skill in the grouping of the dramatis personae. They have been frequently reproduced to illustrate books on Jewish topics. He produced a series of large pictures on confrontations between Jews and Christians, e.g., Moses Mendelssohn and Lavater, Mendelssohn and Frederick the Great, and portrayed the socio-political struggles of the Jewish community – the difficulties and conflict German Jews experienced as they tried to transform to emancipated and assimilated individuals while still holding onto their Jewish identities. Sentimental yearnings for the past as well as the anti-Semitic experiences of the present were also common themes in Oppenheim’s work, as he sought to find solutions to the German Jewish dilemma of the mid nineteenth century.

Through his work, Oppenheim explored the encounter between Jewish traditions and the modern world, as experienced by post-emancipation European Jewry, and tried to preserve and even embolden Jewish identity as well as to challenge the assumptions of his non-Jewish audience. To do so, the artist emphasized desirable aspects of Jewish life and culture. In several paintings depicting late eighteenth century pre-emancipation Jewish ghettos, Oppenheim portrays the ghettos as clean, warm and comfortable, defying the common conception that they were dirty and had uncomfortable living conditions. Jewish Heritage Online Magazine quotes Ismar Schorsch, who wrote: “Oppenheim's ghettos did not loom as the embodiment of Jewish cultural inferiority, social backwardness, economic sterility, and moral depravity as contended so vehemently by the early opponents of emancipation and the Maskilim . . . . Oppenheim painted the ghetto as a refuge of civility and sanctity in an uncivilized world, an oasis in which the Jew, forced to seek his livelihood in hostile terrain, returned to restore body and soul.”

Oppenheim carefully chose which aspects of Jewish life to focus upon in order to accomplish his own personal goals of painting Jews in a positive light for German audiences.  Many of his paintings depict the Jewish family surrounded by books and immersed in learning, in an effort to combat the common stereotype that Jews were uncultured. The Jewish family is also often portrayed in Oppenheim’s paintings, in keeping with the value German society placed on it at the time and the belief that a strong family life bred morality. In illustrating Jewish religious practice and celebration, Oppenheim considered German views that these events were strange and objectionable in deciding what to depict and how.

Undoubtedly, Oppenheim's best works are his numerous portraits, pencil sketches as well as oils, including portraits of Ferdinand Hiller and Gabriel Riesser. He illustrated works by Berthold Auerbach and Solomon Hermann von Mosenthal. The city of Frankfurt commissioned him to paint portraits of past emperors for the Kaisersaal (Emperor's Hall) in the Roemer, the medieval town hall. Admirers came from all parts of Europe to visit his studio in Frankfurt. He continued to paint in his skillful, charmingly naive manner until a few days before his death, unconcerned with the changes in art and taste since his student days in Rome. His autobiography was published posthumously: Erinnerungen, ed. by A. Oppenheim (1924).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jewish Art, Jewish Heritage Online Magazine, World Jewish News Agency, Jewish Art Book, L.A. Mayer, Bibliography of Jewish Art (1967), index; Roth, Art, 544, 522–5

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